Thursday, October 11, 2007

Teacher career-switching: do candidates need parenting experience?

I talked about substitute teaching and my withdrawal from it on Sept. 24, but I want to add some more general remarks about where teaching is headed, based partly on what I saw, and also on media reports about the paucity of male teachers as role models (and the reluctance – sometimes augmented by outright fear or paranoia – of men to enter teaching, especially with younger kids), as well as constant questions about the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind and the laws concerning special education programs. I have attended a few licensure orientation sessions (such as those offered by George Washington University) and I can certainly anticipate the psychological interview questions that could come up had I ever decided to apply for a Master of Education or “career switcher” program. Doing so would mean a financial investment on my part that must be justified by my own goals and the practicalities of the political climate, balanced against some of my own speech.

What I saw over 200-plus assignments (plus SOL binder grading) over three years in Northern Virginia was that the demand places as overwhelming emphasis on younger children and all of those with special needs. A career teacher below college level is, in most cases, accepting the fact that his or her role in life is to educate the next generation and actually help raise that generation, not to create original artistic content or become famous as an artist or sophist. Teaching is an adjunct to biological reproduction and family.

So entering teaching is especially problematic for a male aged over 60 who spent thirty year or so in urban exile. Yes, a gay male—but this comment is deceptive unless followed through carefully. I spent those three decades with an emotional life of my own, living in a separate, though reconciled Dominion with its own psychological wonders (British author Clive Barker’s analogy in his 1991 fantasy novel Imajica is a good way to put the concept). I lived a life that did not require connection with children or non-intact persons. This may seem callous now, but at the time I was not even aware of what I was “missing.” As I discussed in the previous blog entry, external threats since 2001 have made us aware of interdependence and connectedness as virtues, more than we were before.

Although teachers sometimes produce valuable literary works with their students (“Freedom Writers” for example) in general they live in and articulate a sheltered world where not all things can be presented completely truthfully. They work in loco parentis, as role models, and have to assume some of the responsibilities of “protecting” children deferentially. They may indeed resent this expectation of “coddling,” particularly with special education issues. Public speech (whether “conversational” as in social networking or “literary” as in articles) by teachers has become a genuine First Amendment controversy, as content becomes problematic not only over its own legality but because of what students or parents might infer (sometimes incorrectly) about the speaker as a role model.

I’ve said that a career switch might have been more realistic for me if I had full legal equality. The military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy sets a precedent that can be legally problematic for male gay teachers who stumble into intimate care duties. I would feel better about this if the ban were lifted. Even so, though, there remains an issue of personal fulfillment. Can one suddenly start “playing family” at my age? Perhaps there is a social need -- to provide male role models for kids that lack them -- that I would do so even if I otherwise wouldn’t. I do have a problem with "connecting" as a "male role model" to non-intact (male) kids and working with their parents when I do not experience or support the intimacies that create children in the way I lead my own life. I don't have a problem with that expectation from students who have some adult notion of proper self-interest.

There is no such problem for younger people who decide to enter teaching. Even young gay male teachers would need a safer and more legal environment, but no one is going to wonder about their own history as family providers at younger ages, and kids need young adult male role models (of all ethnicities) whose behavior exhibits leadership and good character. It’s better that the younger teachers have some experience with child care, as with siblings, or perhaps even volunteer work like tutoring. In a situation like mine, as a much older person (by a few decades) it would be better if I had tried marriage and having children even if I had divorced (because of sexual orientation) because then I would have the child care experience. Other than that, only some other focused effort (like religious preparation such as what the Catholic Church, however questionably, provides) would prepare me to accept the psychological goals.

There were several occasions with special education assignments (not always voluntary) where I was asked or expected to perform in some ways that I was uncomfortable with or not prepared for. In one case, I was asked to don swimming trunks and get into the deep end of a pool, a clearly inappropriate request (I won’t linger on the existential meaning to me of such a request, other than to say that it sets me up as a distorted "role model" for someone else's agenda, and it leads down a disturbing path of logic). In another case, a guidance counselor sat in on a class because I could not “protect” a particular female student (again an inappropriate comment). In another three-day assignment about three years ago, I was supposed to work with an apparently retarded teen, who seemed inert at first, but then on the second day started responding to me in unusual ways, greeting me in hallways, etc., suggesting to me that he was not as retarded as I had been told. If I had kept working there, would I somehow have “reached” him? Is this some kind of moral question? In various cases I saw (and even conversed with) individual students who had been characterized to me by teachers in ways that don’t match the literature on various developmental disabilities (autism, Asperger’s, various clinical forms of retardation) and I wonder how professionally individual students in public schools are evaluated. This week, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case on whether school districts can be required to pay for private school placement of such students when they don’t have the staff to do the job.

There still remains a question as to the need for teachers in more advanced science and math classes, and whether the need is great enough to justify separate programs. I could have brushed up on the math enough to handle teaching AP calculus. Northern Virginia has a separate public high school (Thomas Jefferson) for the academically advanced, and it could be possible to develop a career switch to meet this need, if strong enough, that does not have the same “fathering” (or otherwise loco parentis) implications.

Policy makers should take experiences like mine to heart. The "math" part of the job, teaching math, to receptive students, might have been fun. There may be plenty of people, coming from other vocations, who would become teachers if the political climate were less turf-oriented and less hostile (sometimes it's downright dishonest). Under the current Bush administration, it has gotten pretty horrible. And we go overseas now to recruit teachers. Does this make sense?

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